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The Science Behind Psychopathy Disorder

What Is Psychopathy?


Psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder where someone manifests extreme amoral behaviour. Psychopathy is considered a controversial idea in psychology. It does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-V) as a diagnosis. It is only a term used to describe those with an antisocial personality disorder. The disorder is characterized by the absence of empathy, manipulation, pathological lying, and impulsivity. Many psychopaths appear normal and charming on the surface but lack any semblance of conscience deep down. Those diagnosed find it difficult to form an emotional attachment to others. Psychopaths are often (but not always) involved in criminal activity. Psychopathy exists among all cultures and ethnic groups. According to some estimates, it is found in around one percent of males and 0.3-0.7 percent of females.


No case of psychopathy is the same. The disorder can be considered on a spectrum, and it is diagnosed using the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist according to PsychologyToday. The checklist assigns a three-point scale to psychopathic traits, such as superficial charm, proneness to boredom, lack of remorse, poor behavioural controls, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. The higher the number, the more severe the case of clinical psychopathy is.


Psychopathy vs Sociopathy


Both psychopathy and sociopathy are antisocial personality disorders, as stated by mha-em. The difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that psychopaths do not have a conscience. A sociopath has a weak conscience, aware of what is right or wrong, but it does not stop their actions. Both lack empathy, but a psychopath has even less regard for others. Another key difference is that psychopaths will pretend to care and mimic emotions, while sociopaths are not afraid to show they do not care.


Difference between psychopathy and sociopathy (magellantv.com).


When Does Psychopathy Start?


Psychopathy is influenced heavily by genetics but can be affected by environmental components as well. Someone may begin exhibiting signs of psychopathy as early as childhood (below ten years old). These signs are called “callous-unemotional traits” and are characterized by a lack of empathy, lack of guilt, and shallow emotions. These children are also more likely to display signs such as bullying and aggression and are less responsive to socially rewarding measures. However, children with psychopathic traits do not necessarily become adult psychopaths.


The Neurology Behind Psychopathy


While more research needs to be conducted on this subject, scientists have already begun to predict the biological cause of psychopathy. Several studies suggest that in psychopathic brains, the neural basis for empathy is faulty or lacking altogether. In a study conducted by researchers at the Center for Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation at the Harvard Medical School, the mirror neuron system was tested for its correlation to psychopathy disorder, according to ScienceDirect. A mirror neuron system is a group of specialized neurons that “mirrors” the actions and behaviours of others. These neurons activate when an individual executes an action, and they observe the same or similar activities performed by someone else. From the study, the researchers observed that psychopaths might have an impaired mirror neuron system.


The mirror neuron system, also known as MNS (link.springer.com).


According to MedicalNewsToday, other studies found that psychopaths have reduced volumes of gray matter in the brain’s paralimbic system. The paralimbic system is where the brain regions responsible for emotion regulation, self-control, goal-setting, and motivation meet. According to a study conducted by Professor Jean Decety at the University of Chicago, he suggests psychopaths lack the neural “equipment” for empathy. Using inmates at a U.S. prison, he asked highly psychopathic participants to imagine the pain being inflicted on themselves. On an MRI machine, the areas linked with emotional processing and empathy lit up, such as the anterior insula, anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. However, when asked to imagine the pain toward others, the same brain areas failed to respond. The study suggests that psychopaths do not have the neurophysiological “hardwiring” that allows them to care for others.


Are All Psychopaths Bad?


Psychopaths have become widely known through media in association with crime, murder, and extremely violent behaviour. Despite this, not all psychopaths are killers. Many psychopathic individuals refrain from antisocial or criminal acts. According to an article written by Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor, there is a misconception of psychopaths. This is because researchers tend to seek them in large numbers, typically prisons, where the focus is on “unsuccessful” psychopaths. In a study, psychopathic individuals were separated into “successful” and “unsuccessful” based on their life outcome and career. It was conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and suggested that psychopathy comes in many forms. Lead researcher Emily Lasko says those “higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) can compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control.” Their conclusion was that some individuals might be better at inhibiting their impulses than others. Although the exact reason this is caused is unknown, they know that it does occur for psychopathic individuals who are considered more “successful” than others.


Many psychopaths function regularly in society. Considered a “successful” psychopath, they can hold jobs such as CEOs and lawyers. (konnekt.com)


Is There a Cure?


There is no cure for psychopathy, but it can be treated. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, it is suggested that both cognitive therapy and drugs may repair the damaged connection between brain areas. The greatest challenge of treating psychopathy is that psychopaths are immune to punishment. Reward-based treatment is considered the best course to manage psychopaths. However, keeping them calm is a means of control, not a cure.



Article author: Jennifer Law

Article Editors: Maria Giroux, Stephanie Sahadeo